The messenger logo

Hammarberg on “serious shortcomings” in missing persons cases

By Mzia Kupunia
Friday, October 1
The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg published a report on September 29, outlining “serious shortcomings” in clarifying the fate of missing persons on all sides during and after the August 2008 conflict in Georgia. The report was prepared by two international experts, Bruce Pegg and Nicolas Sebire, recruited by Hammarberg to monitor investigations concerning the treatment and fate of “certain missing persons.”

“Regrettably, there have been serious shortcomings in the process of clarifying the fate of missing persons and ensuring accountability for the perpetrators of illegal acts,” CoE Human Rights Commissioner said, adding that the experts encountered a situation where “a variety of obstacles surged on the path to the truth.” In his introductory remarks Hammarberg stressed the necessity to overcome the obstacles and “reveal the truth” about the cases mentioned in the report. “This is of particular importance for the families who have already suffered a great deal from not knowing the fate of their loved ones,” he said.

The report focuses on the case of three South Ossetian residents – Alan Khachirov, Alan Khurgaev and Soltan Pliev, who have been missing since October, 2008. The de facto South Ossetian authorities claim that all of them were detained by the Georgian law enforcers, however the Georgian Interior Ministry has repeatedly denied the allegation. Other cases touched upon in CoE Human Rights Commissioner report include an ethnic Ossetian seized by the Georgian side during the August war, as well as two Georgian soldiers captured by the de facto authorities and allegedly mistreated while in detention. The remains of both of them were later returned to the Georgian side.

“Very little” activity had taken place to investigate Khachirov, Khugaev and Pliev case, in spite of prompting by EUMM, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association and the parents of the missing persons almost a year and a half since their disappearance, the report says. A major problem relates to the integrity and impartiality of the investigation, according to Hammarberg. “Though there have been serious allegations implicating the involvement of law enforcement officials in the disappearances, the operational conduct of the investigation was not kept separate from the service to which the officials implicated belonged,” he stated in his introduction.

According to the report, the information obtained by experts indicates that the abovementioned three Ossetian men were apprehended and taken into custody by Georgian law enforcement officials on October 13, 2008. “The inevitable conclusion is that the investigation into this case should be taken over by a highly professional team, whose impartiality and independence cannot be questioned. The supervision of the investigation should be transferred away from regional prosecutorial authorities and the operational conduct of the work should be moved away from the police in the area,” the report reads

What exactly happened to Khachirov, Khugaev and Pliev after they were taken into custody is unclear, according to the experts. “Their families continue to hope and believe that their missing relatives are alive, the experts are aware of various rumors and statements alleging that they are being held in prison or at a secret location. Regrettably, the experts have found no convincing information in support of the hypothesis that the three young persons are alive,” the report reads.

According to experts, the Georgian authorities took “some significant steps” following their advice, including allowing the possibility for the mothers of the missing persons to give testimony to prosecutorial authorities in Gori and granting the mothers the status of victim pursuant. As for the “important” recommendations of the experts, not accepted by the Georgian authorities, includes, as the Pegg and Sebire put it, include the promulgation of a reward for information leading to the discovery of the missing persons. “No serious attempt was made to identify the person who first posted a video on the Internet on March or April 2009, showing the three missing persons in a situation of apparent captivity of custody, being subjected to what to what appears to be a threatening and violent interrogation by persons whose faces are not visible in the video,” the report reads.

The experts claimed that the de facto Authorities in Tskhinvali “contributed little” to the clarification of the fate of three persons. Many of the potential witnesses in South Osetia had not been interviewed in the depth required and no technical inquiries had been undertaken by the de facto authorities with respect to the telephones of the missing persons, which were believed to be Russian registered mobile phones, according to the report authors. “No information could be obtained from the Russian authorities regarding the relevant call charge records. In addition, a proper survey of the conditions and personnel on duty on 13 October 2008 along the administrative boundary line had not been undertaken,” the document reads.

Georgian Interior Ministry officials were not available for comment on the issue.

The experts touched upon the issue of Georgian soldiers, Giorgi Antsukhelidze and Kakha Khubuluri, taken captive by the South Ossetian forces and whose remains were returned to the Georgian side later. “The experts referred to the graphic video material showing Antsukhelidze being subjected to severe ill-treatments, as well as another video showing Khubuluri with visible injuries,” the report says. According to the experts, the de facto South Ossetian Ombudsman acknowledged that the material depicted raised issues on a “very serious” nature. However the de facto Ombudsman underlined the Tskhinvali position that the experts would only focus on investigations into cases of missing persons and not of those whose mortal remains have been recovered, the experts note in the report.

As for the three missing Georgian soldiers, crew members of Georgian tank T-72, Giorgi Romelashvili, Zaza Birtvelashvili and Otar Sukhitashvili, the experts noted that their final position on the matter is that the tank was completely destroyed on August 8, 2008 during the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali. “The remains of the crew members were not readily recoverable,” the report reads.